Exclusive: the Trump Administration Wants to Extend Covid Data Gathering Under the Auspices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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According to a draught of new guidelines acquired by Reuters, the Biden administration wants to expand a federal COVID-19 tracking system established during the pandemic to provide a more precise picture of how respiratory and other infectious diseases are affecting patients and hospital resources.

The concept would expand on a hospital data collection system developed by the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The program’s management was shifted to HHS’s principal public health agency, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last month (CDC).

The adjustment follows criticism of the CDC’s fluctuating public health guidelines during the epidemic and its capacity to collect and evaluate COVID data in a timely and open manner.

The government’s authorization for the existing hospital data tracking scheme is set to expire once the national state of pandemic emergency is lifted.

The proposed strategy would assure its long-term viability and would impose additional requirements on the almost 6,200 member institutions, such as reporting on the number of patients with flu-like illnesses and other pandemic-like diseases in addition to COVID and influenza.

Such reporting would be required of hospitals for them to participate in the government Medicare and Medicaid health insurance programs for the elderly and disadvantaged.

Hospitals would be forced to share anonymized data on patients’ vaccination status, pre-existing ailments, age, ethnic origin, and other characteristics that offer insight into health outcomes across diverse groups.

Beth Blauer, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Pandemic Data Initiative, described the proposed proposal as a “significant shift” and “a rebuilding of trust in the CDC.”

“There is anxiety that once the pandemic urgency has passed, the data flow will cease,” she explained. “This is precisely what they (CDC) were created to accomplish.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing the guidelines and is anticipated to publish them for public comment before they are finalized. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declined to comment on the proposed data extension.

However, several administration officials have expressed worry about the proposed revisions.

“There is simply no indication that any thought has been given to how the CDC can improve its game sufficiently to enable real-time sharing of information that informs the public beyond the federal government,” said a senior Biden administration official familiar with the proposal’s debate but not authorized to speak about it.

In a statement, the CDC stated that it will continue to work with HHS “to ensure statistics are available and accessible.”

Setbacks With a High Profile

The HHS Protect system was launched in 2020 at a cost of tens of millions of dollars under the leadership of Dr. Deborah Birx, the Trump White House’s coronavirus task force coordinator. It swiftly established itself as an efficient hub for daily hospital data on coronavirus infections and fatalities.

At the time, CDC officials admitted that the agency would be unable to quickly alter its National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN) reporting system to collect more hospital and medical inventory data necessary for pandemic decision-making. According to documents acquired by Reuters, the CDC suggested that HHS build a new system for this purpose.

The CDC stated that the decision was made due to the lengthy regulatory review required to modify its own reporting system, among other issues.

“By no means was this an admission of NHSN’s inadequacies,” CDC Chief of Staff Sherri Berger stated in an email.

Recently, the CDC has suffered many high-profile setbacks in its data reporting, including overestimating the efficacy of COVID booster doses for children and failing to track and publish data on vaccine-preventable diseases promptly.

According to Blauer and other experts, the CDC was the proper body to oversee the data collection effort. According to others, it has secured an additional $500 million in funding through the American Rescue Plan to upgrade its data collection even more.

“What we really need to do,” Dr. Celine Gounder, a transition team member for the Biden Administration, said, “is hold them accountable for following through on that.”

(Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Marisa Taylor in Washington contributed reporting; Michele Gershberg and Bill Berkrot edited the piece.)

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